Welcome to the world of intuitive eating — aka the anti-diet.
- What is intuitive eating?
- What is intuitive eating like?
- How do I start my intuitive eating journey?
- Intuitive eating resources
(Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. Consult your health professional if you have specific health concerns.)
What is intuitive eating?
Essentially, intuitive eating is the concept of eating according to what your body needs. It involves tuning in to hunger cues, understanding cravings (for sugars, protein, etc.) and not imposing limitations what is “good” and “bad” to consume.
“Intuitive eating is a philosophy of eating that makes you the expert of your body and its hunger signals.”
According to Healthline, “Intuitive eating is a philosophy of eating that makes you the expert of your body and its hunger signals.” This is what makes it the anti-diet; instead of restricting consumption, forcing over-consumption of certain foods, or abruptly cutting nutrients like carbs out of your diet completely, intuitive eating focuses on feeding your body what it really needs.
Of course, that concept is inherent in its name. Intuitive eating is all about listening to your intuition, trusting that your body will send you the correct signals for what it lacks, learning to understand those signals and eat accordingly.
For those regimented in the diet mindset of strict control and calorie counting, intuitive eating may seem like a radical, and at times dangerous, concept. There are many initial fears, mostly surrounding binge eating, like “If I want a cookie and I let myself have one, what if I eat the whole bag of cookies?” Those fears are valid, and often perpetuated by past participation in harsh restrictive dieting.
However, with intuitive eating, sometimes binging on a specific food is part of the initial journey. Once you (and your body) start to get used to the ability to eat what you want, when you want it, the desire to binge large amounts of a certain foods decrease. Instead of being in a constant state of “need more while I can have it,” you ease into a feeling of security and confidence. That when you want a cookie, indeed you can have it, and you’ll know when enough is enough without feeling the urge to consume as many cookies as possible while it’s “allowed”.
The flip side of intuitive eating, not only eating when you want to, is also stopping when you are full. The pressure to “finish your plate” is set aside, and listening to your body becomes paramount. What you don’t eat now, you can always save and eat later. Contrary to popular belief, nothing detrimental will happen if you don’t finish your food in one sitting.
What is intuitive eating like?
In order to tell you best what intuitive eating is really like, we’ll need to get personal. I became an intuitive eater after years of being caught in the restrictive dieting cycle.
From restrictive to intuitive
At my worst restrictive eating, I consumed about half the daily recommended calorie count for my age and height. I was skinny, but in no way healthy. (Therein lies a crucial difference that often gets lost in a culture where being thin is held as an ideal of beauty. Thin does not always signify health, and having fat on your body does not make you bad, ugly, or unworthy.)
Eventually, I realized that my health was more important, and that choice enabled me to put my physical, mental, and emotional health first. I gave up the dieting and stopped denying my body. I read about intuitive eating and finally resigned to the fact that maybe what my body needed was to be a bit bigger, to have more fat and more muscle.
Realizing this was freeing. I started listening to my body. Sometimes that meant I wanted rice and a fried egg for breakfast. Sometimes I wanted a giant plate of roasted vegetables. And yes, many times I indulged in the french fries I craved, or ate half a papaya in one sitting. I also went through a bout with ice cream, until I realized sugar was a migraine trigger for me (more on that another time). And when its time for pasta, I eat as much as I want.
When my car tells me the gas tank is low, I fill it. It’s the same for my body. Food is fuel. It doesn’t matter if I’ve “earned” the food. I’m fortunate enough to be food secure, and so when I’m hungry, I eat.
Maybe intuitive eating is strange, and maybe it seems strange because its different than what we’re lead to believe is “normal”. Either way, it was (and still is) working for me. I weigh more now than I used to, but I’m also the healthiest I’ve been in my adult life. Most importantly, I’m comfortable in my own skin.
Intuitive eating is food freedom
As unbelievable as it may be, I started craving “healthy” foods. Vegetables, fruits. My desire for greasy, salty, overtly sugary foods decreased. The more natural foods I eat, the better I feel, and the more I want them. Not because they are “good,” but because my energy is improved, my mind is clear, and I’m actually motivated to get moving (a big feat for me).
This may be the greatest irony of intuitive eating. When given absolute freedom to choose what to consume, it’s natural foods my body wants the most. Of course, I still eat fried foods, and still love my tater tots, but eating “clean” all the time isn’t the goal. It’s the fact that I’m free to choose, and this time I choose natural foods because I know how they effect my body, the positive effects they have on my overall health. It’s not a chore to eat healthy — it’s a privilege.
Now, I’m not a doctor, and I don’t know what will work best for you. I can’t say that intuitive eating is the best path or not. All I can share is my experience. For me, this philosophy of listening to my body has enabled a healing process in my relationship with food, increased my enjoyment of it, and ultimately, freed my mind from thinking that handful of chips I just ate ruined my daily calorie count.
How do I start my intuitive eating journey?
First, let’s make an important distinction, best articulated by Healthline’s “A Quick Guide to Intuitive Eating.”
“To eat intuitively, you may need to relearn how to trust your body. To do that, you need to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger:
- Physical hunger. This biological urge tells you to replenish nutrients. It builds gradually and has different signals, such as a growling stomach, fatigue, or irritability. It’s satisfied when you eat any food.
- Emotional hunger. This is driven by emotional need. Sadness, loneliness, and boredom are some of the feelings that can create cravings for food, often comfort foods. Eating then causes guilt and self-hatred.”
Let’s break this down. First, learning how to trust your body. Dieting essentially consists of us telling ourselves “No.” We train ourselves to ignore our bodies signals, instead force feeding it whatever the diet tells us we’re supposed to eat.
Listen to your body
Intuitive eating requires listening to our body’s signals. After years of suppressing them, practice is needed to listen successfully. It will take trial and error. The more you practice, the easier it will become. However, intuitive eating is not something that happens overnight. It’s a journey, but one that is incredibly rewarding.
Second, the distinction between physical and emotional hunger. Emotional eating is what drives us to consume a pint of ice cream when we’re sad, or an entire family size bag of potato chips when we’re stressed. Intuitive eating does not condone emotional eating. Instead, it supports listening to your emotions as intently as you listen to your physical hunger. Acknowledging and honoring emotions, participating in self-affirming activities and prioritizing emotional self-care are all ways to retrain the body from satiating emotions with food to using intentional action to recognize and move through “big feelings.”
Now, we’ve just moved from the realm of physical hunger, dieting, and physical appearance to the much deeper under-layers of emotional well-being and how our emotions affect or reflect our relationship with food. This is a big leap. It’s not one that everyone is comfortable taking. For support in this journey, I’ve included a short list of resources at the end of the post.
Though it may seem like extra work, and it is, the effort is worth it. This may be seen as radical self-care, but in an era of social turmoil and global health crises, I’d argue that being radical in our self-care is exactly what we need. For it is only through taking care of ourselves that we can best take care of others. Extending kindness and understanding inward may be radical, but radical kindness, that is, compassion, is the heart of humanity, and we could all use more of that in our lives.
Intuitive eating resources
Tricia Parido of Turning Leaves Wellness Coaching provides great one-on-one support for your food journey. She’s an expert (literally a Master Coach) whose personal experience with disordered eating makes her an incredible resource on your journey to health and healing with food.
The Healthline article “A Quick Guide to Intuitive Eating,” which includes a list of the ten main principles of intuitive eating, and a short reading list to learn more. While diving more into the philosophy behind intuitive eating is important, remember that your journey should be personal. If you encounter a principle that doesn’t sit right with you, adapt it, make it your own and move forward. This is the anti-diet, after all.
Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S literally wrote the book on intuitive eating. Visit her website to read her blog, schedule counseling or learn more about professional training. She also has a helpful list of resources available for free.https://www.evelyntribole.com/